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The Influence of Rousseau’s Theory of Social Contract on the Declaration of Independence

The roots of America’s government can all be traced to the five founding fathers and the

document they’ve written--the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence is

undoubtedly one of the most important documents ever written. It has helped create the America

everyone knows and loves today. However, unbeknownst to some, this important document had

some inspiration from numerous European writers and philosophers. Jean-Jacques Rosseau was

one of these European writers and philosophers. His Theory of Social Contract championed the

views of the masses and was rooted in modeling society according to what the people want.

Rosseau has written a variety of literary works throughout the course of his life, from

novels, operas, autobiographies, and political opinions. Perhaps the most famous of his works

were those that showed his controversial views on politics and government. His views focused

more on the nature of man and natural society. According to him, the political order must change

to guarantee the rights of the powerless (101). He heavily emphasized on the value of the social

contract, which aimed to create a society that wasn’t governed by the powerful and the ruthless

and that allowed the weak to live peaceful lives (101).

Like Rosseau, Thomas Jefferson also believed in the importance of treating all men

equal; which is why Rosseau’s influence can be heavily seen in the Declaration of Independence.
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This can immediately be seen as one begins to read it: “all men are created equal, that they are

endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and

the pursuit of Happiness (119). While this may seem like an optimistic view of how a

government should be, it shows how Jefferson wanted the equal treatment of all men regardless

of their social stature. It’s also similar to what Rosseau mentions in his Social Contract, in which

he states that the conditions of the contract are the same to all.

The Social Contract does not only emphasize the need for equality but also emphasizes

the rights of the masses. People have the right to abolish their government when it oversteps its

bounds. When a government isn’t doing its job and is acting in favor of the powerful, the people

have the right to break the Social Contract and begin again. In the same way, the Declaration of

Independence mentions that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these

ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government” (119).

Both the Social Contract and the Declaration of Independence give the common people

the power to argue their opinions and speak their mind. While they both have many similarities,

they differ in some ways too. The Declaration of Independence mentions that for everyone to

have protected rights, the government and the governed should be separate. The Social Contract,

on the other hand, teaches about the opposite. In the Social Contract, the people are the leaders.

Since everyone is equal, they can agree to become a single body that acts according to what’s

good for the community.

From the facts stated, it’s undeniable that the Social Contract has an influence on the

Declaration of Independence. Despite their similarities and differences, they are two literary

works that have undoubtedly shaped the American government. Without them, many people in
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America wouldn’t be experiencing the freedom they have today. These documents showed how

Jefferson and Roseau thought beyond their self-interests. It showed the people that they mattered

and that they had the power to decide how a government works.
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Works Cited

Jacobus, Lee A. A World of Ideas. MacMillan Learning, 2018.